Why It’s Hard For Kids To Be Free (Incorporating “Texas Rules Of The Road”)

In today’s GenForward Living Legacy genealogy blog I am touching again on the subject of encouraging independence in my son. This time I am looking at first of all, how things were when I grew up and how that let me grow gradually in independence and self reliance. Secondly I am looking at the reality of our lives today, and how living where we do actually puts up some barriers to this kind of organic growth in my son’s life:

I have written in the past several times on the subject of how kids today seem to be far less independent that we used to be back in pre-history when I was growing up. I have to face the fact that despite all of the efforts we might make to poke my son into standing on his won two feet and spreading his wings a bit, the issue of independent mobility is a big part of the puzzle.

What do I mean by this? I, for example, grew up in a smallish (20,000 people or so) town in what is essentially, the countryside. Although it had one very main road running through the town (this has since been routed round the town in a bypass), it wasn’t a traffic hot-spot. It was also, maybe, no more than a few miles across in any direction before you hit forest or countryside.

Interesting note on the forest, the town was bang in the middle of the largest man made forest in Europe. It was all pine, so the air was packed with the scent of it, although us locals got used to it. I recall the first time my uncle came to stay with us he slept for practically a week. Just couldn’t get used to all the pine in the air.

When we were very young, our world and the friends in it was restricted to within a mile or so of home because that’s what the area serving the playschool was. We lived right next to the people we went to school with, or within 10 minutes walk, so if we wanted to see our friends, we just went and played out in the streets.

As we got a little older the primary school we were at served a bit bigger area. For us it was about 15 minutes walk or maybe 5 on a bike. Practically everyone walked. Each morning there would be a tide of children, accompanied by a smattering of parents, flowing into the school, and at home time, the reverse. Once kids got past about the first year, most just walked themselves with their local friends.

Now we started to range further so bikes came into play more often. 10 to 15 minute bike rides would get us to the farthest flung reaches of our friends, but most were still fairly local. As we had no cell phones or pagers there was no real way to communicate, so we’d effectively just live life out on our bikes bouncing from house to house or location to location until we bumped into someone or found where a bunch of our friends were hanging out playing whatever.

This meant that from an early age, we were mobile, used to being unsupervised, used to acting on our own initiative, and perfectly happy doing so. Barring the lines in the sand drawn by our parents of places we were not allowed to go, roads we were not allowed to venture beyond, and times we had to be home, we were our own lords and masters.

As we moved up the school system the areas got bigger and our range of operations grew larger and larger, until it encompassed basically the whole town. Then I moved to a local private school which pulled people from miles around into the area. Some friends were still local but my best friend lived about 15 miles away.

I never even betted an eyelid, simply arranged to meet him at the nearest station to him (still a few miles from his home) and loaded my bike onto the train and off I went. Given the distances involved, these trips were always either pre-arranged at school or by phone, but nevertheless it was us arranging them (obviously we had to check with parents first as well on these as we’d be together for pretty much all day).

Once at his house, we really were out in the wilds of the country and together we would explore miles out into the middle of nowhere. He had a separate building up in his garden where he had a full sized snooker table so sometimes we’d spend hours in there, or we’d bike off to the local village and play tennis, or we’d sit in his room and play with the new invention, his ZX81 Computer (a 1k memory machine, complete with additional 16K memory expansion brick). On this we’d play things like Flight Sim and 3D Monster maze for hours.

The net result of all this roaming was a genuine feeling of independence. If we wanted to go somewhere, we just got out the bikes and went. It wasn’t long before (when we were missing the train fare), instead of taking the train, we would just cycle the 15 miles through the back country roads to get to each other’s houses. There really was nowhere off limits, short of the capacity of our legs to carry us there.

And herein lies part of the problem, it’s much more difficult here in the land of the free, to give children free reign and their freedom in the same way that we had. Riding around unrestricted on your bike and gaining in independence of action, as a child, is much harder for a few reasons.

Firstly, I live in Texas which is, well, big. Much bigger than my home town was. In fact it’s big enough that you can fit all of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales into it nearly 3 times over. This makes life a little more difficult when trying to cover the mileage on a bike. I used to rack up some serious mileage on two wheels when I was a kid, but here it would just about get me across town. Short of someone being in training for the Tour De France, cycle transport is not really an option.

The area I live in is on the fringes of rural, and consists of little estates connected by 2 and 3 lane roads. These roads are mostly filled with Trucks and SUVs. When I grew up, trucks belonged to builders and a sports vehicle was a bike, or a sledge if it was snowing. Also, these trucks and SUVs seem to be solely inhabited by people who run to a different version of the rules of the road to any that I had ever experienced in the UK. To my mind, it’s a bit too dangerous to have kids riding about on.

But here we come to the problem. How do the kids get about? The local estates are perfectly fine. Kids can play out perfectly safely, drivers are few and far between, and they tend to give consideration to kids playing. The problem comes when child wants to venture further. Rather than the gradual build of experience and range that I had as a kid, here it’s like being in a bubble.

Inside the estate it’s all nice and friendly and quiet. Then you step outside and all bets are off. It’s just not safe on the roads, and the learning curve for kids is pretty extreme. There’s really no safe way to let them roam. If they can’t roam freely and act freely, then it’s harder to build that sense of self reliance and independence.

I guess this is the reason that we have the ability for children to get a driving license a bit earlier at 15.
I understand the need, everything is miles away from anything else, going on a bike on the road is taking your like in your hands, and there’s really no public transport. But 15? Can a 15 year old with zero road or life experience, really be trusted behind the wheel of what is essentially a mobile killing machine?

I get it that it’s supervised driving at that point. However it would have to be a much braver man that me that would sit in the passenger seat of a vehicle with the average 15 year old, and then give them the keys. I do understand that there are extremely mature kids out there, but these are exceptions that prove the rule from looking at the maturity of children that I have been exposed to over here.

Also the whole road environment is so different here in Texas to what I grew up with in the UK. Its one thing having experience as a driver, and then using that experience to adapt to the ways of the roads in Texas, going out there as a learner is another story. Let me explain.

I’m a pretty good driver. By that I don’t mean I should be in motor racing for a living (although I have driven many very fast cars, very fast), I mean that I have a lot of experience of difficult driving, I’m safe. By difficult driving, I mean not Texas driving, which consists primarily of sitting on one practically arrow straight road, with lanes wide enough to get a bus down them sideways, for miles and miles till you hit the junction you need, the performing a turn. Rinse and repeat till destination.

I mean driving on windy, single lane roads with unannounced junctions. Views obscured by trees and hedgerows. Single narrow lanes, pot holes, with cars parked on both sides of the road giving you maybe a few inches clearance. Thousands of miles on London roads (really, you should try it, it’s a different world). Internationally, across Europe and the Middle East, and from coast to coast here in the USA.

To compare driving requirements, in the UK the test was an hour in duration, covering all aspects of road use and car control short of putting it on a skid pan (something they actually do as well in some European countries as part of their licensing). Here in Texas, I parallel parked (something you never need to do in Texas), and drove in a 5 minute square around the block. Congratulations here’s your Texas License (covering both automatic and manual or “stick shift” as it’s known over here because practically everyone in the UK tests and still drives manual cars).

This is not to say that after the UK testing process, a good teen driver is produced. As if keen to prove otherwise, after the driving instructor dropping me off home (they try not to let you  drive straight after a test due to you being too keyed up to really be safe), I immediately jumped in my wreck of a car and proceeded to drive the 10 miles to work with the handbrake fully on. Yes, it was a bit sluggish on take off, but I was alone in a car legally for the first time and the adrenalin was pumping.

 Additionally, most roads were single lanes affairs. Traffic speeds around town were generally slower and more stop/start, somewhat limiting the scale of any accident that might occur happen. You were also most likely to be hit by another small vehicle, again giving both parties a good chance of walking away. Driving on Motorways (70 MPH limits with multi lanes) was restricted as a learner.

It took a lot of years and miles of tough driving to produce the driver that I am today, careful, speed conscious, no tailgating, aware of and considerate of other road users. Never had an accident that wasn’t due to mechanical failure or entirely someone else’s fault (I was stationary in a Texas car park and the guy reversed into the back of me while I watched on my rear view camera, unable to do much). Then then I was presented with driving, “Texas Style”.

Now I saw a government survey recently that said Texas (I think it was jointly with Tennessee) contained the worst drivers in the country. This was in terms of accidents, citations, moving violations and such like. Now, I am prepared to always look at the other side of the coin in any situation.  

I am prepared to take into consideration the fact that, the average Texas motorist has a higher chance of being caught and therefore showing up on the bad driver’s list. Because the crime levels are pretty low round here, the police probably have a little more time on their hands, and may be a little more aggressive in filling the county coffers by way of traffic tickets. I am guessing this is mainly due to offenders having to contend with being shot by their intended victims, which isn’t a crime, more just an occupational hazard. All fair enough.

I am also not one to come to another man’s fine country, or state, and start trying to change the status quo with my weirdy foreign ways. No, not I. All I am trying to do is to illustrate as someone with a slightly different perspective, that as part of adding to my driving skill portfolio, there are added considerations when being a road user in Texas.

Rule number one, and I think this is one that you guys have in common with India, might is right. If you’re small, get out of the way as you will come off worst when we invariably crash. If you’re in a big rig, you rule the roads. If you’re in a Fiat 500, you’re basically a speed bump.

Rule number two. Road rage is a bad idea here as arguments can result in small arms fire. To be fair, on consideration, this should probably be rule number one, and be contained in the preamble for all other rules.

Rule number three. Accept that half of the other road users can’t really drive. Also accept that nobody has ever considered telling them this. This may be because Texans are just brought up to be too polite, it may be because they have a concealed carry license. Just leave space around you. If someone wants to charge across 3 lanes of traffic to get to an exit 20 yards ahead that they didn’t bother to prepare for, let them. This is what mirrors are for, and believe me, you can see the move coming a mile away.

Rule number four. Remember that “under-taking” is perfectly legit here. Unlike the orderly inside lane slowest to outside lane fastest method of the rest of the civilised world, occupancy of any given lane should be considered no indication of expected rate of travel. As well as those who think they are good drivers and who do their best to cause accidents hacking across 3 lanes of traffic, we also have what I can only assume are the drivers who are a bit intimidated by all of this and are a bit afraid to change lanes. They also don’t speed. The end result is that they will sit in the left lane for 27 miles travelling at under the speed limit in order to be ready for an upcoming left turn 3 towns away.

Rule number five. Notwithstanding the existence of rule number one, additional care should be taken when attempting to maneuver round 18 wheelers. As well as the fact that unless you’re also driving a semi, you’re essentially target practice, it seems to be standard practice to keep driving until your tires explode (I think this might actually be a federal requirement as opposed to just a local statute). Being next to one of these monsters when this happens is not good for your health.

Rule number 6. Try to find the place where the locals get their brakes tuned. I am actually still searching; it seems to be a secret. I know a special place must exist because in the UK we have a saying that, “Only a fool breaks the two second rule”. This refers to stopping distances at varying speeds and basically means if you pick a landmark and there’s less that 2 seconds between you and the car in front, you’re too close to allow for reaction and breaking time. Texas residents clearly have the reflexes of a mongoose and brakes that would stop an oil tanker on a dime, because the 2 second rule is more like a 0.2 second rule. I believe it’s mandated to have a maximum gap of under 6 inches between vehicles regardless of speed.

Rule number 7. If it’s raining, the rain is slowing you down, drive faster so you still get where you were going on time. In fact this rule appears to apply to all adverse weather conditions.

The rest of the general rules of the road seem to involve doing your very best not to stay in one lane at any time, and remaining permanently on the phone. I am also fairly sure it’s illegal to have a working rear view mirror, or to indicate before you slam on the brakes or lane change. I’m sure I’m going to get pulled over one of these days as I just can’t override a lifetime of driving in Europe. I just can’t break that bad habit of mirror, signal, THEN maneuver, as opposed to the correct Texas method of maneuver, signal when half way round the corner, oh I thought a mirror was only for looking back at what you hit to see if it’s worth stopping to grab it for dinner.

Now once the foreigner has acclimatised to the local driving rules, it’s not so bad. Just know your place, keep out of the way, remember that those boxes on the backs of trucks often contain shot guns, be prepared for anything, and you’re all good.

I was a very independent child however, I never had a bigger rush of independence than when I passed my driving test, and was truly free for the first time. I would love to let me son have that feeling, the sooner the better for his own benefit, but I’m scared. I’m scared because I truly believe that when you factor in the Texas licensing requirements, the Texas rules of the road, an inexperienced child behind the wheel of a car, and the fact everything is multi lane roads travelling at speed (unlike Europe where traffic crawls though towns), it’s not a case of if the accident will happen, but when and how big. My worry is that all too often the answer is too big.

Perhaps he won’t get our current car handed down to him after all. Maybe we will head to army surplus to see if we can arrange a part exchange on a tank or APC. After all, if might is right US Army must be the rightest of all.

 

Tom@genforward.org

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